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Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Olivettis: the Myth, my Collection

In light of my article in or maybe in celebration of it, I have decided to do a tour blog of my Olivettis. It isn't the biggest collection, or even the most complete. It is, however, mine. And I love it.

Olivetti Lettera 22
There are earlier models of Olivetti portables. If you look hard enough, you'll find the rare MP-1. But as far as the world is concerned, it is the Lettera 22 that got the ball rolling. Sleek, light, and well built, the 22's were well reviewed if not bought in droves. They were really the shout out from Olivetti, saying, "We are here, World!"

Everything on the 22 went to the 32 ten years later. All basics: line select, paper supports, half-space for corrections. It even had the unique hallmark of Olivetti--the margin release key, when depressed, could act as an automatic 1/2 indent when returning the carriage.

A true first attempt, there is a lot in the guts of the 22 that needed a good revision. They are messy and convoluted. A lot is stacked and hard to get to. The 32 cleaned up nicely and is very easy to do repairs on. Also the action of the 22 is terser, requiring on the lightest setting a great deal of force.

But it still stands out as the first in modern typewriters, and was a favorite of Sylvia Plath.

Olivetti Lettera 32
It is the typewriter of all typewriters, sitting in the hallowed halls with the Royal Quiet de Luxe, Olympia SM-9, Hermes 3000, and IBM Selectric. What was wrong in the 22 was corrected, and what was right was improved upon.

The 32 has the perfect touch. It is also a little bigger than the 22, giving it a bit extra meat when sitting on the table, which is good for long typing sessions; chasing your banger across the table every two or three words can be taxing.

It is from the 32 that Olivetti planned its next 30 years or so of manufacturing. Everything that follows is really just ruminations on the 32, sometimes improving and other times redressing for a new generation.

As far as usability goes, the 32 is one of my most used machines. After tens of thousands of words, it shows no signs of wear, even after 40 years of use.

Olivetti DL/33
It was first called a deluxe, and later a 33. That's going to become a bit of a habit for Olivetti. The 33 added superficial features to the Lettera mostly making it look more high fashion than student machine. The paper guides were given their own encasement; a platen shield--to keep the dust and wite-out away from your feed rollers--was added. The DL is one of Olivetti's first shots at plastic body typewriters, though it was marketed as vinyl. 

The only real addition the DL made mechanically was moving the keyboard tension lever to the top of the machine instead of on the side. The inside has a lot more insulation, too. The 32 pings when typing, and the guts can be heard clearly through the base plate, but the DL has a perfectly singular clunk, accompanied with nothing else. It's little things like that that make it worthy of being called "Deluxe"

Olivetti Lettera 31/Dora
The very antithesis of deluxe, if the 32 was the standard, the 31 was super economy. The paper guides, grapher, tab were all taken out, as was the aluminum body. Instead the 31 has a plastic box. Literally. It makes for one of my favorite machines to look at. With its well defined and simple lines, it looks like a beginners guide to how Olivetti designs.

It is this boxy style that really lasts the longest. When the 32 is phased out, the 31 body continues on under a thousand different names. The latest I saw it was in an ad for the 1990 Soccer World Cup, labelled an Italia 90. The keys are different, but there is no mistaking the Dora/31 box. I'll bet it skids across the table like a Dora, too.

Olivetti Lettera 35
Debuting in 1974, it is the true successor to the Lettera 32. It has everything the 32 had, but in a new all aluminum body. Updated with newer, smaller, white key caps the 35 is a new direction for Olivetti, moving the company away from their sleek, tiny typers and to thicker portables that look more like cartoons of typewriters.

The 35 also came in a million different names over its twenty years in production. It also shared the name Italia 90 in the same ad as that 31. Mine is a 35l, which is probably the "deluxe" model of the 35. It has all the extras that the 33/DL had back in '69. However, there is no denying the heritage of the inner mechanism. It is a Lettera 32, through and through.

Olivetti Lettera 25
The 31 of its day, the 25 is a stripped down, economy typewriter. Marketed as Olivetti's basic portable, the 25 is a plastic housed 32 mechanism without the tab, paper guide, or tension adjuster. Like its brother, the 35, the 25 is much bigger than the Letteras of years past. But put alongside a 35 and a Studio 46 semi-standard, you see that it too shows a unified vision that Olivetti had. It too is sleek, cool, and simple. Also like the 31, the 25 showcases all of the basics of Olivetti design in its simple and sexy lines.

Most will say that the Olivetti's of the late 70's through to when they stopped production in 1994 were not as good as the machines of their heyday 60's, but I would disagree. The platen might not be as big, but I would argue that the last incarnations of the Lettera (excluding the 10 and 12, because those are hideous) are every bit the machine their grandfathers were. 

The typewriter was on the wane by 1975. Computers were coming up. Olivetti was even making some. Yet, when other companies phoned it in with Chinese knock offs (I'm looking at you Royal) Olivetti kept making their own machines, designing them with their eye, and kept the original vision alive: looks, touch, and price. The Lettera of the 80's still feels great. Much better than a Brother or Nakajima. I'd say they feel better than the last of the SM-9'S that rolled off the line. They look better too. Just looks at those shadows on that sharp body. Sexy. Damn sexy.

In the end, you can say what you want about Olivetti, but there is no denying: this is a company that could sell itself and its machines. They lasted longer than any of the others. They beat out Olympia, Royal, Hermes, Underwood. They did it with a quality product, dynamic marketing, and style and grace that wasn't to be seen again.

That's all from Elliott at the Kitchen Table, ready for another day.

UPDATE 10-4-13: As I have come to find, the 35l is not a "deluxe" model. Rather, it was a trimmed down version of the 35, with different colored platen knobs (black instead of white), a slightly smaller shell (literally, we're talking fractions of a inch smaller all round), and no hard shell case. Mine came with a tote bag. 

It also sold a bit better, as the 35l pops up more on ebay and etsy than the 35 does. It also helps that the 35l was produced longer, if my estimates can be trusted.